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Come after the games and you’ll find much more than tennis
Wimbledon and tennis are nearly synonymous, and rightly so. This leafy suburb—just seven miles from central London—is the longtime home of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, which hosts the international tennis championships every summer.
But when the crowds and world players leave the courts, Wimbledon Village reverts to a charming, sleepy community with a life of its own.
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Easily reached from central London by the District Line, Wimbledon’s streets are framed by elegant houses with pretty front gardens and lots of open spaces. It’s a brisk 10-minute walk from the tube station up Wimbledon Hill into the High Street that is the center of Wimbledon Village—nestled between Wimbledon Park with the All England courts on the right and sprawling Wimbledon Common on the left.
Walkers and riders on horseback make their way across the common, one of the largest open spaces in London, onto the Village’s bustling High Street with its Edwardian architecture, diverse restaurants and small shops.
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Wimbledon Common, about 1,100 acres with no fences or gates and open round the clock, was the site of several famous duels in bygone times. Today, though, its natural rugged beauty emits calm and tranquility.
While walking with her young children on Wimbledon Common one Boxing Day, Elisabeth Beresford got the idea for a series of children’s novels. Thus the Wombles, pointy-nosed furry creatures that live in burrows beneath Wimbledon Common and help the environment by collecting and recycling rubbish, appeared in 1968. The stories went on to become a popular children’s television series on the BBC.
Fortunately, visitors to Wimbledon Common can enjoy all that it offers by staying above ground and walking, bicycling, or riding on horseback on its designated paths. The shallow pools scattered across the common with archaic names like King’s Mere, Queen’s Mere and Rushmere welcome Canada geese, ducks and sundry other wild birds.
Perhaps the most prominent feature of Wimbledon Common is the impressive windmill erected by a local carpenter in 1817. He was permitted to build it “upon this condition that he shall erect and keep up a public corn mill for the advantage and convenience of the neighborhood.” The windmill ended its working life in 1864 when it was converted into cottages within the structure. These apartments became dilapidated over the decades and were eventually vacated. The Windmill Museum opened in 1976.
The museum explains the engineering of such structures and contains some beautifully crafted working models of different types of windmills. It is believed that Lord Baden-Powell wrote Scouting for Boys in the windmill’s picturesque tearoom in 1908. The museum is open on Saturday and Sunday afternoons and public holidays from April to October.
The Common has a number of cottages scattered within, but also contains two grand houses. Southside House, open to the public at certain times of the year, relates the history of this area through generations of one particular family. Its gardens offer a blend woods and water for spectacular beauty. The Crooked Billet nearby is known its German food. A pub has been on this site since 1509, though the current building dates to 1776.
Cannizaro Park, on a corner of Wimbledon Common, was once the garden of Cannizaro House, an opulent structure that has been turned into a hotel. An annual July music festival and open-air theater are held within the walled garden.
Wimbledon’s original High Street with its many restaurants, cafés, pubs and small shops dates to medieval times. This street has changed little over the years, snaking its way through the village; many of its buildings and much of its architecture date to the Edwardian era.
Cath Kidston’s joyous designs and colors light up her shop windows with familiar floral patterns on all sorts of items—book bags, wallets, scarves, hats, gloves. Liquid refreshment can be found within the Rose &Crown or the Dog and Fox, two historic pubs dating back to the 17th century. While Wimbledon’s High Street has the usual English chain restaurants including Giraffe, Pizza Express, Strada and Tootsies Grill, Lydon’s—with its excellent wine list and fine European atmosphere and cuisine—is where the locals tend to congregate for a special meal. Meanwhile Maisson St. Cassien is the perfect spot to enjoy a delicious French pastry. However, if it’s a brilliant summer day, or even if it is not, Bayley and Sage will prepare an outstanding picnic lunch to be enjoyed on the Common.
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A short walk from the High Street is The Broadway, with two of Wimbledon’s popular theaters. The New Wimbledon Theatre was originally opened on Boxing Day in 1910 and will soon celebrate its 100th anniversary. It was recently extensively remodeled, though its ornate façade, decorative plasterwork, wrought iron balustrades and other original features have been retained. The theater’s shows often migrate to the West End.
With its outstanding reputation for top-quality children’s shows, the Polka Theatre has been staging theater for children of all ages for more than 20 years.
Between the High Street and Wimbledon Park is St. Mary’s Church, which dates to 1086 and merited mention in the Domesday Book. The present structure was built in 1843 by Sir George Gilbert Scott, the architect responsible for designing St. elegant Pancras Station and the Albert Memorial. The church is a study in English design, incorporating styles from different centuries.
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As the calendar turns to June, crowds return to Wimbledon for the tennis championships. Lawn tennis was added to the activities of the All England Croquet Club in 1875. Nine years later the name of the club was altered to All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. (The name remains the same out of sentiment although croquet is no longer played there.)
Originally located off Worple Road, the lawns were laid out so that the principal tennis court was situated in the middle, with other courts arranged around it. The “Centre Court” designation remained when the club moved to its present location in 1922. The ladies’ singles joined the men’s matches in 1884 and Wimbledon soon achieved its international fame.
Since Wimbledon conjures up tennis, a visit to the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum is essential. Through various exhibits this museum tells the history of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. On film, a three-dimensional John McEnroe—a former men’s champion—leads a tour of the changing rooms as they were when he was a player in the 1980s. The museum contains a large collection of trophies and memorabilia, and its gift shop sells miniature trophies.
The ongoing exhibition entitled “Raising the Roof: The Creation of Centre Court” gives visitors an up-close look at the famous Centre Court from its beginnings in 1921 to the changes taking place now. After years of rejecting such an idea, Wimbledon will no longer delay championship matches because of rain as the new retractable roof will enable play to continue.
Wimbledon is certainly worth a visit—perhaps especially when the tennis championships are not scheduled, great as they are. That’s when the real Wimbledon, the village its residents cherish and are happy to share, can be enjoyed.